Florida Virus Expert Is Optimistic About Vaccines, Therapy to Treat COVID-19

A doctor is testing a sample of biological tubes contaminated by Covid-19 and searching for a vaccine. Photo: Morakot Kawinchan/Shutterstock.com

While conducting a webinar on Wednesday, April 22, Dr. Michael Farzan at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter detailed preliminary research that could be a step towards creating a vaccine for COVID-19. Even as thousands die and more are sickened in the coronavirus pandemic, a top virus expert at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida sees reasons for hope.

Farzan insists social distancing is still something the population needs to practice. He also worries about the state of widespread testing. “The big-picture message is on the scientific front and I mean only on the scientific front … things look pretty good.” Farzan said. Dr. Farzan also co-chairs and is a professor for the Scripps Research Institute’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology in Jupiter.

Farzan’s work with other researchers at Scripps and elsewhere was the main talking point. His work is something he and the other researchers hope pinpoints a potentially safe and effective option for a coronavirus vaccine. Their results have been posted to a website for scientific preprints that have not yet been published.

Dr. Michael Farzan updated members of the public on his coronavirus research work Wednesday afternoon. Photo and Caption:  Scripps  Research Institute/www.staugustine.com

The research involved injecting four rats with doses that included a collection of amino acids found on the coronavirus. The receptor-binding domain (RBD) method used by Dr. Farzan helped kickstart the production of neutralizing antibodies detected in the rats’ blood, researchers wrote.

The human body produces antibodies to fight off the coronavirus and other ailments. So far, the highly-contagious virus has infected almost 1 million Americans with close to 50,000 deaths.

Antibodies are key to the development of coronavirus therapeutics and vaccines, Farzan said.

The Scripps-suggested vaccine candidate also appears to come with less of a risk in other vaccines, such as those for Zika and dengue fever, that can actually make it easier for viruses to penetrate cells, researchers wrote.

The use of the RBD method to develop antibodies is a departure from other vaccine techniques currently pursued, which use material that is larger, Farzan said. But he said the RBD strategy creates an immune response that is “way more than enough.” And its smaller size could be crucial, he added.

There may be alternate techniques to the RBD-method vaccine. Farzan suggested that the two techniques could be effective as a pair, with one as an initial vaccine and the other as a booster.

Even beyond vaccines, Farzan said science shows other reasons for hope. For weeks, he and dozens of scientists at Scripps campuses in Jupiter and California have worked on various efforts related to coronavirus research.

Some characteristics of the coronavirus make it more “stupid” than other viruses, Farzan said, like the flu virus and HIV.

For one, the coronavirus has a comparatively large genome and evolves slowly. That makes Farzan hopeful antibody cocktails or vaccines will be effective over multiple years. And the coronavirus moves relatively quickly from person-to-person, he said, rather than building up resilience to an individual’s immune system.